New Challenges for Murderbot: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Artificial Condition is the second of Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, after last year’s All Systems Red. It could be subtitled “Murderbot makes a friend, finds it harder to pretend not to be a person, and discovers some truths about their past,” but that’s a really long subtitle, so it’s probably just as well it isn’t.

Murderbot has left its former clients (and possible friends, if Murderbot admitted to having human friends) in the PreservationAux crew in order to figure out what it wants from life. What it wants, it’s decided, is to figure out if it’s actually responsible for a massacre in its past: the massacre after which it hacked its governor module to make sure it would in the future at least have a choice. That means travelling to where the massacre occurred to find out what information remains—and to see if it can jog its organic memory, which ...

A Change in Hostilities: Afterwar by Lilith Saintcrow

If, like me, you’re familiar with Lilith Saintcrow’s backlist, Afterwar may come as a surprise. It’s not that Saintcrow’s previous books weren’t dark. They could be plenty dark—but they were, in the main, dark within the emotional expectations of dark urban fantasy or steampunk as a genre. Afterwar is the first of Saintcrow’s novels that I’ve read than can be parsed as purely science-fictional, and the first that is purely human in its horror. It is also very much in dialogue with the present political moment in American life, where at least one swastika-burning Nazi rally has occurred and been reported in the international press.

This is a novel of an America where a coalition of “Federal” forces and guerrilla partisans have fought a civil war against a Nazi-esque regime led from Washington for years, and where those “America Firsters” have instituted a system of concentration camps and laws even ...

Sleeps With Monsters: So Much Genre TV, So Little Time

There’s an enormous media landscape out there. Just as regards speculative fiction in English: the wider media landscape is even vaster. It’s easy to feel left out when you haven’t (or can’t) keep up with something that many, many other people are talking about. And for me, at least, it’s easy to feel guilty about not keeping up. I’m supposed to be able to keep up: what else is the ability to read ~200 books per year good for?

But it turns out that being able to read three or four books a week (on average) is still not nearly fast enough to keep up with a plurality of what’s written and published. And that leaves out quite the large amount of television, film, and videogames that’s also available to enjoy. A little while ago, I spoke about the books that I was looking forward to in the later part ...

Deep Space Revenge: Medusa Uploaded by Emily Devenport

Generation ship stories seem to come in and out of fashion. Or perhaps they’re always in fashion to some degree: certainly in the last few years we haven’t lacked for examples of the subgenre, including Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, and Beth Revis’s Across the Universe. In Medusa Uploaded, Emily Devenport’s debut novel—adapted and expanded from her 2015 novella “The Servant,” published in Clarkesworld—the generation ship story comes complete with more than the usual number of secrets, murders, twists and lies.

Lots of murders.

Our first encounter with Medusa Uploaded’s protagonist, Oichi Angelis, comes in a prologue in which she’s ruminating on what kind of killer she is. And, in a general sort of way, on the reasons behind her murders: she kills for revenge, but also for a practical goal, for the purpose—or so it’s implied—of saving or bettering ...

A Light in the Grimdark: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

R.F. Kuang is apparently one of those prodigious youthful achievers who make the rest of us feel like slackers. Still in her early twenties, with a prestigious graduate scholarship to her name, she has a highly-anticipated debut novel in The Poppy War. Published by Harper Voyager, it’s the first novel in a projected three set in a fantasy world inspired by the history of China’s 19th and early 20th century. It takes its fantasy epic-ness seriously: this is a novel that sprawls out from its relatively contained beginning to a broad canvas of war and magic and divinity.

War orphan Rin sees the Keju—the Nikara Empire’s empire-wide test to find the most talented young people to study at their national academies—as her only possible escape from an arranged marriage and a life of servitude and despair. When she aces the test, it comes as a shock ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Marriages and Monsters

Life takes you by surprise with how fast things happen. In the past few weeks, I’ve become engaged to be married, and set out on a journey of attempting to buy a house with my beloved fiancée. (Houses are bewildering and expensive.) This makes me feel rather sympathetic to the just-turned adult protagonists of E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, who are all of a sudden finding themselves dealing with truly adult concerns.

(Trying to buy a house is basically an End Boss in adulting. I had no idea—though I expecting raising a child is a little more stressful.)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is an alternate history of the present. It’s an alternate history so implausible, diverging from ours as it does with an anti-racist, neo-feminist Queen Victoria whose descendants still rule a (mostly fair and just) empire upon which the sun never …

Sleeps With Monsters: Marriages and Monsters

Life takes you by surprise with how fast things happen. In the past few weeks, I’ve become engaged to be married, and set out on a journey of attempting to buy a house with my beloved fiancée. (Houses are bewildering and expensive.) This makes me feel rather sympathetic to the just-turned adult protagonists of E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, who are all of a sudden finding themselves dealing with truly adult concerns.

(Trying to buy a house is basically an End Boss in adulting. I had no idea—though I expecting raising a child is a little more stressful.)

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is an alternate history of the present. It’s an alternate history so implausible, diverging from ours as it does with an anti-racist, neo-feminist Queen Victoria whose descendants still rule a (mostly fair and just) empire upon which the sun never …

Stolen Moments: Time Was by Ian McDonald

Multiple-award-winning Northern Irish writer Ian McDonald has a significant body of work behind him, from 1988’s Desolation Road to 2017’s Luna: Wolf Moon. Time Was, his new novella from Tor.com Publishing, is a peculiar story of time, mystery, books, love, and war, compact as a parable, layered like a complex metaphor… and in some ways, strikingly unsettling.

Emmett Leigh is a book dealer in present-day or very-near-future England. He finds a book of poetry in the discards of a closed used bookshop: Time Was, printed in 1937, with a letter in its pages: a letter from Tom to his lover Ben during WWII. This unusual find spurs Emmett’s curiosity, and he tracks down clues to find out who Ben and Tom might have been: clues that lead him to a dysfunctional relationship with Thorn Hildreth, descendent of a WWII chaplain who still has his diaries—and ...

Magical Exiles: The Fairies of Sadieville by Alex Bledsoe

The Fairies of Sadieville is the sixth volume in Alex Bledsoe’s much-praised Tufa series; as far as I know, it’s intended to be the final volume, too. Set in the mountains of East Tennessee, the Tufa novels revolve around the community of people known as the Tufa—people who were in the mountains before the first European settlers arrived, and around whom there are many legends. Including the legend that they’re related to the Fair Folk of Irish and British folklore.

That legend, as readers of the series thus far will have gathered, is more true than not.

When Justin, a graduate student at a local university, finds an old film reel locked away in the office of his recently-deceased advisor and labelled “this is real,” he and his girlfriend Veronica decide to watch it to find out what it shows. The film shows a young woman with ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

This week, I’d like to talk about a film that qualifies as SFF either tangentially or by association, and which I enjoyed enormously. If Argo counts as SFF enough to find itself on the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot, then surely Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is sufficiently close to speculative fiction for our purposes.

Written and directed by Angela Robinson on a small budget, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is an imagined history of the relationship of William Moulton Marston (the creator of Wonder Woman), his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Marston’s lover Olive Byrne. The film, according to accounts by the Marstons’ descendants, bears as limited a relationship to the truth as ever any Hollywood biopic did, but as a drama about unconventional relationships in the early to mid twentieth century, it’s deeply compelling.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women depicts Marston (Luke Evans, with a ...

Charming Trouble: The Barrow Will Send What It May by Margaret Killjoy

Last summer, Margaret Killjoy introduced us to her itinerant anarchist protagonist Danielle (Dani) Cain in The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, a brief, elegant, bloody novella about power, social responsibility, consequences, and why it’s often a terrible idea to summon inhuman eternal spirits that you can’t control.

At the end of The Lamb Will Slaughter The Lion, Danielle and her surviving new friends—including Brynn, the woman for whom she’s developed an attraction and with whom she’s begun a tentative relationship—are on the run, with some unfortunate and inexplicable-to-the-law dead bodies in their wake. The Barrow Will Send What It May picks up immediately where Lamb left off, with Danielle, Brynn, and company on the road, heading west. The group is in some disagreement about whether they should prioritise flight (and staying ahead of any potential police interest) or using their new, hard-won knowledge of magic and the occult to ...

SFF and the Enduring Myth of Atlantis

Few of us realise how deep the roots of the classical past actually reach.

The written history of the Greeks doesn’t go back as far as that of say, Egypt. In fact, Herodotos, in the fifth century BC, thought that the Egyptians were the bees’ knees when it came to any number of things, the antiquity of their records among them. But the writings and art of the ancient Greeks—and their cultural emulators, inheritors, and adaptors, the Romans—have exercised an influence over European culture and imagination which is to all practical purposes unparalleled. Before the twentieth century, literature, art and architecture were saturated with classical allusions, and the so-called “classical education” was de rigueur. Even today, whether or not we realise it, we’re surrounded by classical references.

So perhaps it’s no surprise to find that from Robert E. Howard to the Stargate, SGA, and BSG television series, elements from ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Six Hotly Anticipated Upcoming Books

It’s a third of the way into the year already, and I’m not at all sure where the time went. (A black hole at the centre of the universe? My diminishing capacity for memory? Legends of Tomorrow’s stranger plotlines?) But this week, I want to tell you about some books that are coming out later this year that I’m really looking forward to. This isn’t all the books I’m looking forward to: I’ve decided to—rather arbitrarily—limit my list of Hotly Anticipated Items to six. (Six is enough to feel like a moderately-sized number without tipping over into feeling like I’m slighting anything by leaving it out.)

So, in no particular order, these are the books I’m very eager to read!

Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys (Tor.com Publishing, July). A sequel to last year’s excellent Winter Tide, Deep Roots’ cover copy promises:

“Aphra Marsh, descendant of ...

A Fantastical Tragedy: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The Queens of Innis Lear is the latest novel from Tessa Gratton (whose past works include fantasy modern Norse America series Gods of New Asgard as well as The Blood Keeper), currently a writer on the acclaimed serial Tremontaine from Serial Box. The Queens of Innis Lear is a standalone epic fantasy, that rare bird of a single volume story—and it’s a long one.

There have been many fantasy treatments of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, several on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even one or two (I believe) on Coriolanus, but this is the first novel I recall to deliver a fantastical take on The Tragedy of King Lear.

Spoilers will follow.

It’s remarkably faithful to its source material, save for a handful of structural innovations—including permitting its Cordelia-figure (Elia) to refuse marriage with its King-of-France analogue (Morimaros, king of Aremoria), and to survive the ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Comfort Reading

Last month, I went looking for comfort reading. It turns out that my comfort reading at this point in time can be divided into two: pulpy space opera after the manner of David Drake’s RCN novels, and SFF stories in which queer women feature prominently and get to be a combination of (a) successful, (b) happy, and (c) in relationships with each other. I’m going to talk about a couple of the latter today, because although I’ve looked high and low…

…Well, there’s not much that combines the two, is there?

On Twitter, Stephanie Burgis (author of Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets) recommended Effie Calvin’s The Queen of Ieflaria to me. Princess Esofi has been betrothed to the Crown Prince of Ieflaria for most of her life. A powerful battlemage, she’s been preparing to share in the rulership of her betrothed’s country her whole life, especially as ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Annihilation is Amazing, and Full of Women

I suspect the reason I got to watch Annihilation on Netflix is the same reason that I enjoyed it so much. Its parent studio Paramount didn’t believe it would make money on a theatrical release, and thus didn’t spend much energy on promoting the film. And I find myself unwilling to believe that the fact it stars five women—women who are presented as complex and intellectual, who aren’t present as objects for sexual consumption, but whose competence is assumed in every scene and every glance—had nothing to do with that.

Annihilation is luminous. It’s dizzying and visionary and strange, a balletic question with no certain answer, peculiar and horrifying and layered and gorgeous, and lit from within with its own artistic vision: unified, structurally and thematically, in a way that few Hollywood films ever are. It’s a film that speaks with its silences, embraces them. It layers implication, symbolic meaning, ...

Flirting with Revolution: Torn by Rowenna Miller

Rowenna Miller’s fantasy debut, Torn, starts with great promise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to its promises: like many fantasies that flirt with revolution, it ultimately fails to actually critique the system of aristocracy, ascribing the flaws in a system of inherited power down to one or two bad apples and general well-meaning ignorance among the aristocrats rather than the violence inherent in a system that exploits the labour of the many for the benefit of the few.

I hold fantasy that flirts with overturning the status quo to higher rhetorical and ideological standards than fantasy that doesn’t question the established hierarchies of power within its world. It sets itself up to swing at the mark of political systems and political change, which means that when it fails to connect, it’s pretty obvious. When it comes to systems—and rhetorics—of power, the question of who ought to be in ...

Flirting with Revolution: Torn by Rowenna Miller

Rowenna Miller’s fantasy debut, Torn, starts with great promise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to its promises: like many fantasies that flirt with revolution, it ultimately fails to actually critique the system of aristocracy, ascribing the flaws in a system of inherited power down to one or two bad apples and general well-meaning ignorance among the aristocrats rather than the violence inherent in a system that exploits the labour of the many for the benefit of the few.

I hold fantasy that flirts with overturning the status quo to higher rhetorical and ideological standards than fantasy that doesn’t question the established hierarchies of power within its world. It sets itself up to swing at the mark of political systems and political change, which means that when it fails to connect, it’s pretty obvious. When it comes to systems—and rhetorics—of power, the question of who ought to be in ...

Sleeps With Monsters: Feeling and Faith in The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

I’ve only ever read a handful of books that treat the question of religion in fantasy with any serious weight. The presence or absence of gods and their powers, the (un)knowability of divine things, the question of whether or not one can get, or understand, an answer from a god—the question of whether, if you’ve given your fealty to a god, it matters if you understand the use said god makes of you—is not a question that fantasy in general deals with in great detail, even—or perhaps especially—in those works that take the existence of gods for granted.

Until now, my short list has generally included Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods works (The Curse of Chalion, Penric’s Demon) and not much else. But now I find—in the middle of a grimly humorous story that reminds me of nothing so much as a really fucked up Forbidden Realms ...

Betrayal and Compromise: Stone Mad by Elizabeth Bear

In 2015’s Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear introduced us to Karen and her compelling, colloquial storyteller’s voice. Stone Mad follows on from that story, with Karen recovered from her injuries and enjoying a nice dinner out at a fancy hotel with her lover and partner Priya before they move into the farmhouse they’ve bought together. But events, in the form of a pair of travelling Spiritualist sisters, rather intervene…

Well, the Spiritualist Arcade sisters, Hypatia and Hilaria Arcade; Mrs Micajah Horner, the widow of a famous showman; and a deeply unhappy borglum. Karen’s impetuous nature means she puts herself forward to investigate and/or help the Arcade sisters without consulting Priya, who disapproves. Their resulting argument—Karen hot-blooded and stubborn, with her back up; Priya stubborn and hot-blooded in a different way—is unresolved, with Priya headed home without Karen, when the hotel starts shaking on its foundations. Karen, Mrs Horner, and the ...